What ‘Physical’ Means?

When we speak about the distinction between physicalism and other views on the mind-body issue, the understanding the distinction depends on what people mean by “physical”. So for example, when physicalist says that there is no difference without physical difference, or when dualist says that there is something besides physical things, what do they mean by “physical”?

To make sense of the distinction, we need a reasonably clear and reasonably distinct idea related to ‘physical’.

So, in the past post I proposed that the idea of people relate to ‘physical’ when they get into the discussion about mind-body issue is that of elementary particles affecting each other as determined by physical laws.

And given this idea of particles which show certain behavior, the claim that one can a priori deduce such thing as presence of conscious experience, or the exact type of conscious experience, from the patterns of behavior of those particles, is weird. It is weird, as I said, because through a priori deduction, we can’t get from that particular idea (of patterns of behavior of particles) to nothing but facts about those patterns. So, it seems, physicalists haven’t moved away from behaviorism, but they moved into something even more weird. The consciousness is supposed to be now, not a name for particular behavior of the whole person, but for a particular patterns of behavior of the elementary particles.

But, now, the physicalist will say – “IT IS not just an idea. It is real particles, or.. it is real physical stuff, and what you hold in your mind when you think of it, is not all there is to it!”

And really most of the arguments against Zombie argument object this relation between what we think and what is the case. It is said that we can’t say what is possible on base of what is conceivable, because we don’t know a lot of things about this physical stuff.

Brandon at Siris, in his recent post An Anti-Zombie-Argument Argument for example says:

(3) To know that no part of description A entails any part of description B we must know that no part of either description is overlooked.
: Suppose part of the description is overlooked. Then, for all we know, the part of A that entails B may be that part of the description that is overlooked.

But, now here we swapped the tables for a moment. Because, we point that physicalism is a claim that one can a priori deduce the presence of consciousness, and exactly what kind of consciousness there will be, just given the physical facts. So, we can point now, that we can choose:

Either we can say that we have some reasonably clear and distinct idea of what “physical” is, in which case, we CAN discuss the possibility of such a priori deduction, or we can give up making distinction between views like physicalism, dualism, idealism, and such… And having said that, I again think that what most people have on mind when they talk about “physical” in relation to this issue is the idea of the elementary particles whose behavior is governed by physical laws.

I want to explore this issue of meaning of ‘physical‘ for physicalists somewhat more. I’m not in doubt that for physicalists ‘physical‘ can be taken to mean ‘everything real and actual‘, or that they equate those two categories. But as a base for distinction of the physicalism from dualism, and other things, this kind of definition of physical just won’t cut it.

Also, I guess that for physicalists, ‘whatever we perceive through seeing, touch, etc…‘ is a category which coincides with ‘physical’. But then, again, same as the previous, it either makes the whole distinction of different views as impossible, or is just begging the question against those other views.

Much better I think is to connect of ‘physical‘ with what can be subject of physical laws. That would allow for physicalism to keep the doors open for “overlooked parts” that Brandon mentioned. But, it should be kept on mind ,that if physicalist points in this direction, it can’t be just any overlooked thing that will change the situation. It has to be something relevant, and not just yet another property that can be quantified. Such “overlooked things” won’t change anything, we will still be deducing just facts about complex behavioral patterns. And also if the physicalist points to some different phenomena like quantum weirdness, and some such things as the things which were overlooked, it imply also that these phenomena have some role in existence of the conscious experience.


Chris at Mixing Memory presents a very cool re: Your Brains song (“as if”) performed by zombies , and
Clark also wrote a post about zombie argument, but in context of more general analysis of those kind of arguments.


14 thoughts on “What ‘Physical’ Means?

  1. I think this is a very promising line of thought; pinning down the physical in a way that isn’t vague (so that you know what you are talking about) and yet also isn’t too specific (so that it doesn’t fall apart when new scientific discoveries come along) is one of physicalism’s major problems, and I think it’s a good idea to press physicalists on it a bit.

  2. Thanks, Brandon!

    I agree with what you say, and also think there is place for more detailed analysis of the notion of physical.

    Hi Clark,

    Hopefully some (lonely) physicalist will emerge in the comments here.

  3. Good post. I think the minimum contribution the zombie discussion should be able to make is to lead people to think more carefully about their assumptions about what the entities of physics really are.

  4. No physicalists?

    I ask since it seems to me that the property dualist as opposed to the pure dualist or the emergent dualist can have their cake and eat it too.

  5. Thanks Steve. I have some further thoughts that I think will write today if I don’t get too sleepy.

    Clark, why do you think so (re having cake and eating it)? Can you explain more about what kind of property dualism you have in mind?

  6. Well a property dualist allows for all the stuff that physics allows and no more. It just asserts that this stuff has mental properties. This could be characterized in many ways. The obvious property dualist is Spinoza. The big advantage is that you don’t have these nagging problems of interaction between mental and physical substance. But let’s take two others: Peirce and Penrose.

    Now I’m not sure Penrose would consider himself a property dualist. And I suspect there are those who say he isn’t either. However he would say that brain state doesn’t correspond to mental state unless we include some odd quantum phenomena. The quantum phenomena is obviously physical and there’s no ‘mental stuff’ but just physical stuff. How does this let him have his cake and eat it? Well he need not acknowledge anything beyond physics, he doesn’t have to adopt the odd contortions physicalists in the mental debate take, and he can claim that the physical state and the mental state aren’t the same. They get the cake (everything reducible to physics) but they get to eat it (the physical and mental states aren’t the same)

    Peirce is pretty similar although terminology for him is more complex. Mind for him is basically anything semiotic. Brain function is semiotic and thus mental. But then so is a hive of bees. So he’s expanded the sense of mental beyond what we normally mean. However consciousness (to the degree he allows himself to speak of it – he feels it’s a muddled term) is basically the inward aspect of chance. (He was a head of his time adopting the Epicurean notion of swerve in a day when Newton ruled physics. Quite a feat for a physicist.) Thus to him there are three irreducible aspects to any phenomena but it’s not like there is more than the physical.

    Now if we expand physicalist to include the denial of anything beyond third person descriptions then things get more complex. And that probably would exclude most property dualists. (Although not necessarily Spinoza – but he’s an odd case.)

    My big problem with physicalism isn’t the usual attack. Rather it’s just that it seems a hopelessly muddled and often self-refuting position given that we don’t have a final set of laws of physics. If there are mental properties someone could always assume physics would deal with them. Which makes pinning down physicalism difficult at the best of times.

  7. Thanks for the explanation!

    I wonder however if those views circumvents the problems of epiphenomenalism (which I take is another kind of property dualism). That is, if the behavior can be explained as a result of the “traditional” third person observable properties, and if mental properties are distinguished from them, it seems to me we will again get to the issue I was pointing about epiphenomenalism – we will have implausible story of why we discuss those things. It won’t be because we are conscious, but because the laws which govern those “traditional” properties. And as I said, I find that incredibly weird. I mean, EVEN if we take the being itself to be that other property (that is, grant that physicalism isn’t limited to just third-person descriptions) we still get into the same problem. (I mentioned that here under c)

    As for Penrose and quantum weirdness in general, I guess it depends what kind of new theory might be. I mean, if it is again just a mathematical formula which relates a couple of third-person observable properties, of matter, what will it change in relation to the issue of a priori deduction of the conscious experience from that description? So, given the physical laws that we know, if it is just yet another physical law, I don’t see what relevant new fact can come out of it. Maybe if together with that new theory comes a different metaphysics. But then, I wonder if what we mean today by “physical” will be applicable to such new metaphysics which solves the issue. Also, do we have any reason to apply the term “physical” e.g. to the apparent randomness of the collapses? I guess there are “physicalist-friendly” theories for it, but also there are people that think that the “fundamental law” when we come to it, will again not give reasons for those collapses happening that way and not otherwise. As Gel-Mann said in that TED talk, the universe is not determined just by fundamental law. It is fundamental law, plus incredible long series of accidents, which are there in addition to the fundamental law. And it seems to me, for all that we know, the reason for those collapses happening as they are might come outside of physics.

    To me, dualism of modes/or aspects seems like much better solution, (or well, really no need to limit ourselves to number 2, there can be lot of aspects), but with that, that there is no reason really to say that “the substance” is physical stuff. We just agree that there is actual things, we agree that they are open for empirical investigation. Some of them that aspect, where we can approach them through precise measurements – and we call that physical aspect, some of them we can be aware of directly and have different sciences for those aspect (like psychology), and we can do correlations between aspects – like neuropsychology. Seems that such metaphysics makes much more sense, than equating anything “real and actual” with the “physical stuff”, especially as you say the term “physical” is very muddled.

  8. Another variation on this is what is called Russellian monism (sometimes neutral monism, called “type-F monism” in Chalmer’s categories of positions on the mind/body problem): our physical descriptions are necessarily only of relational, dispositional or extrinic (pick your terminology) attributes of things in the world. They leave out the non-relational, categorical, or intrinsic aspect of these things. Because first-person experiential facts are the only intrinsic facts we know of, we might infer that experiential or proto-experiential facts indeed constitute the intrinsic aspect of all “physical” things.

    Therefore, there is no ontological dualism really, just a dualism of perspectives: given that there is a pluralism of things in the world, we indirectly know the extrinsic facts about things from the third-person perspective and directly know the intrinsic facts about our own experience of things from the first-person perspective.

    This is an elegant solution, except that it is panpsychist or panexperientialist, which most people are predisposed to dislike.

  9. Hi Steve.

    I think that categorical phenomenalism, or type-F monism has basically the same problem that I was pointing about epiphenomenalism. I think roughly it will fall into what in the previous post I named “consciousness as being” response of physicalists. Think about this…

    Type-F monism says that if we give a full description of the world, (e.g. on paper), we will still see calculating it how in it there will appear phenomenon of philosophers and epiphenomenalists discussing consciousness. But, same as in epiphenomenalism, it will not be because they are conscious!

    So, given this, I would agree it is more elegant than epiphenomenalism, but I think it fails for the same reasons I pointed in my attacks on the epiphenomenalism.

  10. I see your point. A way to extend the argument for type f monism is to posit that the categorical aspect has work to do — specifically for a theory of causation. But I understand this takes us beyond the philosophy of mind arena.

  11. True, that path is open. I guess as long as one is OK with giving up the causal closure of the physical (in the sense that we get reasons (for things being as they are) which go beyond the regularities related to the physical laws) we get new “field” of conceptual frameworks to choose from.

  12. Maybe if together with that new theory comes a different metaphysics. But then, I wonder if what we mean today by “physical” will be applicable to such new metaphysics which solves the issue.

    This to me is key.

    Look at the rather large change in metaphysics when physics transitioned between Newtonian mechanics and quantum mechanics. And there is absolutely zero clue about what a final theory will look like. The best candidates right now are variants on string theory and then loop quantum gravity. But to say that they have problems is to understate things considerably. Then there is all that unexplained phenomena like dark energy and dark matter. And we still don’t have much of a clue what the early universe was like prior to the Planck time.

    So to say physics is underdetermined is a mild understatement. Given that how on earth can physicalism even be a useful position to take?

    The problem with epiphenomenalism is that it’s not at all clear what it’s attempting to resolve. It seems like folks want to think there will be nothing new and mysterious about how the brain functions beyond what we now know. Yea we don’t know everything but we shouldn’t expect any shocking discoveries on par with the move from Newtonian mechanics to QM and GR. But even if that turns out to be the case, of what use is it to make an argument that hinges upon that?

    As Gel-Mann said in that TED talk, the universe is not determined just by fundamental law. It is fundamental law, plus incredible long series of accidents, which are there in addition to the fundamental law. And it seems to me, for all that we know, the reason for those collapses happening as they are might come outside of physics.

    Well that’s anthropic reasoning. I confess a physicist’s instinctive distrust of anthropic reasoning. One reason some physicists like the idea of a multiverse is that it avoids the significance of such accidents. Afterall there are lots of universes much like there are many ways to deal a deck of cards. Why be surprised that there is at least one with a Royal Flush?

  13. Thanks Clark,

    I think we agree on most of these points. I guess while the distinctions like physicalism/dualism, etc.. are helpful, at some point the details might go beyond the whole metaphysics on which the dichotomy was based on.

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